Briana Morgan asked me to write a post on focus. How do you focus on your writing when there are a million distractions pulling at your poor mind in all directions? How do you manage to sit for hours and just write, without checking your phone or email or news or staring at a cat chasing a chicken across the road or getting sucked into research justifying it with the need to know exactly how many goats it takes to eat a field of blackberry bushes in a day?
I will liken the process of focusing on your writing (or any art making for that matter) to meditation. What exactly is meditation? Stripped to its basic concept, it's the clearing of your mind. And it is also our answer to the disruption of our previously tranquil lives which we invited upon ourselves about 10,000 years ago when we stopped hunting mammoths and decided to settle and grow them in cages instead. Or sable-toothed tigers. Or whatever the delicacies of that era were.
I will be going even deeper here, so make sure to get your popcorn.
If you read about any of the hunter-gatherer tribes that remain on our planet, you will come across smart numbers smart people have compiled for you, just to illustrate how miserable we are and how carelessly happy they happen to be. Specifically, I'm referring to the percentage of time they and us spend on work. They spend only 40% of their time on work (don't quote me on this number, I don't remember where I saw it and what exactly it was, I only remember it was depressing), the rest of the time they do nothing. We spend what? 80%? 113%? 164.77352% of our time on work? So you see, while we slave, they smell the flowers and pick their noses. Turns out, smelling flowers is beneficial for your mental health. Turns out, that is what meditation is, this ability to be in the present and empty-headed, just watching your thoughts float away. Children have that ability, but it gets quickly squashed by well-meaning parents.
Why did I give you this brief theory of mine on what meditation is? Because it's the same theory I have about creativity. When we create, we smell flowers. We watch our thoughts, we record them (which is getting them out of our heads), and afterwards we feel bliss. We're empty. We're happy. It's an amazing feeling akin to the one you feel after a good meditation session. Ever wondered why writers are addicted to writing? Yeah, that.
And here is where focus comes in.
Before you can start focusing on your writing, just like if you have never meditated, you will need to build a habit of being alone with your thoughts. No distractions permitted. No stimuli. Nothing. And you must do it every day to have any kind of results, and not for a month, and not for a year, but at least for a couple years and maybe even more to shed all that garbage that floats around in your brain and to get to the core of who you really are. And that is very simple too.
You are one with the world.
Ever noticed how experienced writers exude this charming calm? There is a presence about them, isn't there? Same can be said about Tibetan monks. These are the people who have found inner piece by being able to shut out the daily incessant chatter that polluted their heads.
So how do you go about achieving this state? How the fuck do you focus on your writing when you had no previous experience and don't know where to begin?
You start building a habit.
Those of you who read my blog regularly will recall that I have written about this several times. It's all about building a discipline. I'll repeat it here again, comparing it to meditation. When you start your meditation practice, depending on whom you have read or listened to, you will probably be advised to start with 20-30 minutes at first, not more. Later you can graduate to an hour and to a whole day (which is totally hardcore but will probably teach you how to levitate). Same with writing, only instead of sitting upright with your eyes closed you sit upright with your eyes open staring at the blank screen (which is arguably the same as having your eyes closed).
What's going to happen when you do it for the first time? You will freak out.
Remember, freaking out is normal.
If all you did was freak out for 30 minutes in front of a blank screen, YOU DID EXCELLENT WORK. Congratulate yourself and get on with your daily things. I would recommend doing it first thing in the morning, before you let the stream of information into your mind. That means NO CHECKING YOUR PHONE, NO WATCHING NEWS, NO BROWSING ONLINE. You are forbidden to do anything for these 30 minutes but to look at the blank screen.
For those of your who have already been writing for a while, like Briana who asked me this question, set the time according to the length of your typical writing session and keep adding to it 30 minute increments. So if you're writing for 2 hours every day, when you get comfortable with 2 hours, make it 2 and a half hours, and so on. But watch out for your creative limit. Seems like 4 hours is about the time I read most writers are productive at, and anything over 4 hours is spinning wheels (unless you're on fire and can't stop). It's different for everyone, and you will find out your own limit soon enough.
Will it be hard? You bet. Building a new habit is a bitch.
Should you quit if it becomes unbearable? No. Break through your squirming and whining and feeling lazy and cowardly and do it. Building discipline sucks ass.
Can anyone do it? Yes! All it takes is dedication and perseverance, and you'll be a pro at focusing on your writing in no time.
Will you ever get better? Absolutely. I've been writing full-time for 3 years and only now can I focus on my writing even if I get interrupted or if my day goes wrong and throws off my schedule.
Should you focus on word count? No! Do not even think about it. If you stared at the screen for 30 minutes and wrote only one word, awesome. You did your daily work. But very soon that one word will become one hundred, then one thousand, and maybe one day you will crank out 10,000 words in one sitting without noticing how you did it.
Should you focus on the story? No! Write any nonsense that comes to mind. You are building a new habit and that's what this is about, not about the story. And yet, you will soon notice that your nonsense will start making sense.
The above is obviously a guide for beginners, but you can adapt it to your own writing routine depending on your experience. The only key here is to do it every day.
WRITE EVERY FUCKING DAY.
Write on bad days. Write on good days. Write on holidays. Write on your birthday. Write on the day an asteroid slams into Earth and wipes us out, leaving you the only speck floating in space forever frozen in a stare at the nonexistent screen, your fingers curled over the long evaporated keyboard.
If you have to, at first, just like with meditation, SET YOURSELF A TIMER. Once the timer goes off, you're free to do whatever the hell you want. But until then, do nothing but write.
Oh, I forgot one important thing.
When you start building this habit, you can't have any distractions. Later you can add listening to music or going to coffee shops and writing there or whatever you want (I write my first draft to music blasting so loud, the walls shake.) At first you have to start in a quiet place, and that might be you sitting in your bathroom with headphones on because you have no other place in your apartment where it's quiet. Stephen King started writing from a closet too, balancing his typewriter on his knees (or something like that, I can't remember exactly).
So this is it. Write every day and you will develop your focus.
Tell me how this approach works for you or offer your own. I'd love to hear your stories.